December 12, 2008 / 5:53 PM / in 9 years

Custom made goods seen defying downturn

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - At the height of the financial crisis, a German woman spends 18,000 pounds ($26,770) on a specially ordered, hand-crafted crocodile backgammon set at luxury goods store William & Son in trendy Mayfair.

The sleek black design, with white crocodile points, matches the interior of her husband's super-yacht.

A few days later, a British banker, apparently oblivious to the financial storm swirling around his industry, walks into the boutique and forks out 12,000 pounds on a Audemars Piguet wrist-watch.

Five minutes' walk away, at Van Cleef & Arpels on Bond Street, Mayfair's fine jewelry quarter, another London financier spends 250,000 pounds on a necklace.

Even though the world is on course for a recession, demand for the most exclusive of luxury items appears resilient in London, particularly for so-called "bespoke" - or custom-made -- goods, luxury executives say.

Bespoke items range from tailored suits to specially commissioned fine jewels, silverware, guns and mobile phones.

London is one of the world's top shopping capitals for luxury goods, attracting high net-worth tourists from around the world.

So far, as Christmas approaches, the signs are that despite Britain's rapidly souring economy, demand for top-tier luxury is defying the slowdown.

William & Son's Chairman, William Asprey, said the financial crisis underscored the need for vigorous marketing of luxury goods, but demand for custom-made items was holding up well.

He said he hoped the recent strengthening of the dollar would spark more luxury spending by U.S. tourists in London.

"We cannot be complacent. We have to work hard to win business," Asprey said, speaking shortly after the refurbishment of William & Son's flagship store at 10 Mount Street, Mayfair.

Mount Street, a boulevard in one of London's most exclusive districts near the U.S. embassy and a cluster of top hotels, has become a fashionable center for bespoke luxury.

Stephen Webster, renowned for accepting über luxury bespoke fine jewel commissions from rock stars and the ultra-wealthy, will open a boutique there in the spring 2009, another sign that top-tier luxury demand is defying the downturn.

POWER OF BRANDS

In economic downturns, consumers turn to well-established brands for reassurance, luxury executives say.

"Very established brands give you confidence -- they can stay with you and help you live through the crisis," Van Cleef & Arpel's UK Brand Director, Geoffroy Medinger, told Reuters.

"Whenever there is a crisis, people want to be confident in the quality of what they buy. At Van Cleef & Arpels, we have a long history, and we have lived through very many crises."

Paris-based Van Cleef & Arpels, founded in 1906 and now a subsidiary of Swiss luxury group Richemont, is one of the world's best known fine jewelry brands.

Sales of other types of exclusive goods and services are expected to flourish despite the brutal economic climate.

UK-based Vertu, which hand-makes exclusive mobile phones using precious materials, is confident it will sell a single-edition, solid gold mobile phone designed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Paris-based jewelry house Boucheron.

"We have not priced it yet, but we think it will fetch at least hundreds of thousands of pounds," Alberto Torres, president of Vertu, a unit of Nokia, told Reuters at Vertu's new boutique on Bond Street.

"Its value is in its uniqueness and pioneering craftsmanship."

Exclusive railway tourism is also faring well despite the downturn.

Bookings on the Orient Express rail route from London to Venice, popularized by writer Agatha Christie, were up in 2008 as some people felt they could still justify a really special treat, executives say.

RAREST JEWELS COMMAND HIGH PRICES

In October, Bond Street jeweler Alisa Moussaieff paid $8.8 million for a 39.19-carat rough blue diamond mined in South Africa, believed to be a world record price for such a gemstone.

She said she was confident that she would find a buyer for the diamond after it was cut and polished.

Moussaieff, co-owner of London boutiques on Bond Street and in the London Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, said diamond prices had softened due to the financial crisis, but the rarest and most exquisite gemstones would still find buyers at high prices.

"The good things sell and the things that are not so good don't sell," she told Reuters.

"A lot of people have (plenty of) money. But they are being extremely careful, extremely discerning."

Reporting by David Brough; editing by Paul Casciato

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